National News

A Woman's Journey From Cancer Diagnosis To 'Professional Patient'

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 10:56

Advances in cancer treatments have made some forms of the disease a chronic condition. But protracted treatment, even when successful, comes at a high personal toll for patients and their families.

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Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Will Be Charged With Desertion, Lawyer Says

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 10:56

Bergdahl was released by the Taliban in exchange for five detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Bergdahl was captured after he walked off his post in 2009.

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A Chinese cabby's query leads to Mary Pilon's epiphany

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-03-25 10:55

With the Mandarin language skills of a buffalo, I began chatting with my taxi driver in Shanghai, a polite man with plenty of questions about the United States. It was early 2007, and sitting in a back seat that reeked of stale cigarettes and body odor, I certainly didn’t see a financial epiphany coming. Then, the driver went straight for the jugular.
“How much money do you make?”

Like many Americans, I was happy to talk about macroeconomics, such as the dazzling growth of China’s G.D.P. at the time, the increasing cost of living in Shanghai or how his country’s trade relations were knotted with those of mine. But when it came to the more micro, as in the very digits in my bank account, I felt an urge to jump out of the moving cab. (I was a student at the time, so an honest answer was easily at hand: “None.”)

Since then, a recession has come and gone, and I think of this cab ride often. Many of my 20- and 30-something peers struggle with student-loan debt and high rent, and more than once I’ve erupted in laughter at the idea that I will collect any Social Security in my Betty White years.

Yet when it comes to talking about money as in, our money, there’s a risk that we’re carrying the bad financial discussion habits of our parents with us. If I ask any of my friends their “number,” I’m more likely to receive an estimate of the number of people they’ve slept with than anything related to their credit scores or net worth.

Money can be a reflection of our perceptions of power, self-esteem, personal history, fears and happiness. Or, as a friend recently put it to me, your personal finances can feel like “your grown-up report card.” But whatever its source, this reluctance to talk money hurts us. The topic matters if you want there to be gender equity in pay or economic diversity on college campuses. I’ve often wondered what would happen if an Edward Snowden of human resources sprinkled salary spreadsheets around workplaces.

The app Venmo may be our best shot at transparency. Like PayPal, it offers a handy way to exchange money with friends. But people can also display their transactions Twitter-style as a stream of digital money changing hands — a bizarre and sometimes revealing window into the wallets of those you know.

In a recent episode of the engaging podcast Reply All, a guest spoke of knowing via Venmo that a couple was splitting up, by noticing charges for things like “half a couch” or “half a chandelier.” My own feed recently had transactions for “shenanigans,” “your mistake,” “Girl Scout cookies” and “therapy,” the latter two having a certain poetic similarity. So it’s not salary Snowden, but a start, with emoji for emphasis.

After that cab ride with the driver who popped the money question, a Chinese friend explained to me that, in spite of systemic issues with corruption, some transparency around personal finances remained. Under Communism, it was common for people to know what their peers were making. Some Americans, like those working in government or nonprofits, know the consequences of having their salaries public. Last I checked, the planet hadn’t imploded. And I’m sure if I had thought at the time to ask the cabdriver what he made, he wouldn’t have flinched at responding.

While I’m not calling for every American to pick up a copy of “The Communist Manifesto,” I do find it ironic that a country that for decades has enjoyed more personal wealth than most places in the world is more reluctant to talk about it. For the equivalent of a couple of bucks, I received a window into China’s lesser-discussed pockets of openness. As the personal fortunes of many in China continue to swell, I wonder if their willingness to discuss it will as well. Or if, just as it has adopted KFC and “Friends,” China will import America’s money taboos as well.

Meet the pen Obama uses to sign bills

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-03-25 10:45

President Obama signed his — ahem — signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, five years ago this week. And he had a fancy pen to do it, too. 

More like 11 pens, actually, one for each letter of his name. Note the box to his left. 

Like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him, President Obama uses a Townsend pen for signings. That said, Obama hasn't affirmed much legislation lately — no word on whether he uses the Townsend for vetoes. 

Its manufacturer, A.T. Cross, supplies lots of pens to the White House

"The second thing is, the White House gives out mementos to people who come and visit — important people — and we participate in both those categories," says Cross CEO Chad Mellen.

While Mellen says it's a privilege to be the Presidential pen provider, Cross does sell the custom pens to the White House. Not so to the general public, if you want to get Obama's pen, you can find a Townsend like it for about $150 retail. Otherwise, your best bet is Ebay

American Presidents aren't the only notables wielding Cross Pens. Queen Elizabeth signed a bill with one, and former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a big fan, often photographed with the silver Century pen glinting from a pocket.

And the Cross pen isn't a recent phenomenon.

"We've got a letter in our archives ... John Steinbeck sent a note back to his editor saying that he's going to have stop writing unless he can get some new Cross pens and refills," Mellen says. 

Looking to the future, is Cross worried by the explosion of tablets, stylus and keyboard? 

"The idea that handwriting is going the way of the buggy whip is not accurate," he says.

Instead, Mellen thinks digital handwriting — stylus or finger on screen — could soon merge with old-school writing on paper. 

"That's where we really see writing instruments and handwriting going."

Takeaways From The Federal Report On Deadly Force By Philadelphia Cops

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 10:30

The Justice Department crunched years of data after Charles Ramsey, the city's police commissioner, requested that it look into how and when his officers used deadly force.

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Nielsen answers Netflix data mystery

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-03-25 10:20

The head of Nielsen, the company behind ratings, told Bloomberg that by the middle of the year they're going to start providing audience data for Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Netflix, for one, has been notoriously vague about exactly how many people watch, such as "House of Cards."

The numbers won't matter much for Netflix and Amazon, other than prestige, because they don't sell ads to support programming — but it's gonna shake things up a whole bunch broadcast-wise.

Scientists Discover A New Form Of Ice — It's Square

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 10:01

Researchers were surprised by what they found when they sandwiched a drop of water between two layers of an unusual two-dimensional material called graphene.

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Meet The Cool Beans Designed To Beat Climate Change

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 09:04

Researchers in Colombia have created new types of beans that can withstand high heat. Many of these "heat-beater" beans resulted from a unique marriage, 20 years ago, of tradition and technology.

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BBC drops "Top Gear" host, risking losses

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-03-25 08:45

The BBC has fired one of its most popular stars, Jeremy Clarkson, host of the "Top Gear" motoring show.

The BBC sells "Top Gear" to more than 200 countries around the world and it commands an audience of 350 million viewers. The BBC said it had no choice but to let Clarkson go after the star punched one of his co-workers. The host had been given many final warnings following a series of allegedly racist, homophobic and sexist comments on and off the show.

But the BBC’s decision to dump him could prove costly. Top Gear earns the corporation $75 million a year and that could be in jeopardy without the volatile but popular Clarkson. 

The sequester's not-so-stringent budget cap

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-03-25 08:45

The Budget Control Act of 2011, also known as the "sequester," is supposed to cap government spending at set levels. But Congress has repeatedly found ways around that, and one main source of the over-limit spending has been the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. 

The OCO fund is for wars, but it's also being used so Congress can pass new spending without running afoul of the sequester, since the OCO fund is exempt from the Budget Control Act.

That doesn't mean the budget deficit hasn't come under control, though. Since 2011, when the Tea Party was at its peak of power and the economy was in the dumps, increased tax revenue from an improving economy has helped push the budget deficit from roughly $1 trillion to $500 billion.

The investors behind the Kraft-Heinz merger

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-03-25 08:43

Kraft and Heinz announced Wednesday they would merge to form the fifth-largest food and beverage company in North America. But the future of the Kraft Heinz Company depends on the pair of investors, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian private-equity firm 3G, who made the deal happen. 

In general, there's a fairly simple formula for when mergers are a good idea.

"Whenever you're going to be able to create more value than the companies could do on their own," says Donna Hitscherich, director of the private-equity program at the Columbia Business School. "I mean, that's the essence of it. But the devil is always in the details." 

In this case, the details are about cutting costs, as Berkshire Hathaway and 3G have done at Heinz, which they purchased in 2013. In order to reach their declared cost reduction target for Kraft of $1.5 billion by 2017, Anil Shivdasani, professor of finance at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill, says there's "no question" this will mean lay-offs.

But Erin Lash, senior analyst at Morningstar, says it won't all be about firing people and spinning off brands.

"You know they're potentially more important to some of their suppliers, so they might be able to negotiate better terms," Lash says.

The fight over America's rails

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-03-25 08:28

There’s something romantic about a train whistle. It makes you think about far-away places. Adventure. Lawsuits.

Yep, lawsuits. The jostling for rail space has actually made it all the way to the Supreme Court

Part of the problem is the way rail traffic is split up in this country. Privately-held freight railways are thriving. Amtrak gets government subsidies, and it mostly runs on track owned by the freight lines. 

Delays peaked over the past few years for both passenger and freight rail.

“Our biggest concern was our customers,” says Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, a trade group for freight rail companies. “We move what Americans consume, what American manufacturers make, what American farmers grow,” he says.

Meanwhile, over at Amtrak, passengers were frustrated by all the delays.

“We watched on-time performance plummet,” says Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.  He says, on some trains, there were: “Five, six, seven hour delays.”

Federal law says passenger trains  get priority on the rails. Amtrak says that means freight trains should pull over for passenger trains. But Mathews says that doesn’t always happen. He says at one point, Amtrak’s Capitol Limited train, from Washington to Chicago, was late more than 90 percent of the time.

“It had on-time performance in the single digits last summer,” he says.

The freight railways say they’re often blamed for delays that weren't their fault — delays caused by weather, or accidents. They say they actually subsidize Amtrak, because it uses their tracks. Which they pay to maintain. 

“Last year they spent $26 billion – private money," Hamberger says. "This year they've announced plans to spend $29 billion.”

And that lawsuit, the one that ended up in the Supreme Court? Amtrak scored a partial victory. But the case was kicked down to a lower court, and the legal fight continues. But court battles aside, here’s the deal. Freight and passenger lines  need to figure out how to share the rails.

“The primary issue between the freight and the passenger railroads is both have growing business,” says Steven Ditmeyer, adjunct professor of railway management at Michigan State University. 

You could build more track, Ditmeyer says. The passenger association certainly wants the government to spend more money on rail infrastructure. The freight railways would welcome more government cash, but not if it came with more regulation. 

Ditmeyer says: Let’s think about what we can do, now.

“There can be ways to make sure that both get the time and space they need on the track,” he explains.

Freight trains could run on more set schedules, Ditmeyer says, making it easier to coordinate them with strictly scheduled passenger trains. There’s also a sort of air traffic control system in the works for our railways, designed to eliminate bottlenecks and improve safety. 

It was supposed to be finished by the end of this year, but it's behind schedule.

Obamacare Five Years Later: Thriving Or On Political Life Support?

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 08:23

The health care law has sliced the number of uninsured by a third. Yet it remains deeply polarizing, and its fate could be decided by the Supreme Court and the coming presidential election.

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Patients Often Aren't Offered Minimally Invasive Surgery

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 08:13

Laparascopic surgery can be faster, safer and cheaper, but patients don't always get the choice even if it's appropriate, a study finds. Using it more often would reduce complications and save money.

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Yemen's President Flees Country As Rebels Capture Major Airport

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 07:40

State television, which is now controlled by the Houthis, said the rebels have seized an airbase that was critical to U.S. drone operations against al-Qaida. The base is just 35 miles from Aden.

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With Sen. Dan Coats' Retirement, One More Gone From The Old School

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 07:21

These days, flying with both the defense hawks who want more money for the Pentagon and the budget hawks who want to attack the deficit has become more difficult within the GOP.

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How Did Ebola Volunteers Know Where To Go In Liberia? Crowdsourcing!

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 07:15

Kpetermeni Siakor was 900 miles from home when Ebola struck. But with special software, he helped direct volunteers and supplies to the right spots.

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Supreme Court Revives Pregnant UPS Worker's Discrimination Lawsuit

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 07:11

At issue is an employer's responsibilities under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The decision gives a former UPS driver another chance to show the company discriminated against her.

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Supreme Court Rejects Ruling That Upheld Alabama's Gerrymandering

NPR News - Wed, 2015-03-25 06:39

In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices called a district court decision that upheld the state's redistricting plan, which overloaded some districts with black Democrats, "legally erroneous."

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